The Queer Reticence of the 1990’s Modder

LOCKETT QGCon 2015 headshotSPEAKER: Will Lockett

On July 16th, 1999 an online academic journal, Switch, published a special issue on the topic of software patches for digital games. Accompanying the journal issue was an online exhibition comprised of modifications (mods) to first-person shooter (FPS) games, calling itself “Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art”. On July 29th, 1999 seven teams composed of game designers, artists, and programmers met in a cyber café in San Francisco to exhibit their mods of Valve corporation’s FPS title, Half-Life (c. 1998). In the following decade, the FPS mod became both an object to think with (for social theorists, media theorists, and digital artists) and a para-corporate facet of the game industry (populated by skilled player-designers and sociologists of the internet). Academics, artists, players, and designers (often switching between these various roles) all made attempts to describe and transform the modding scene. The player-designer-writer made an effort to live within (and constantly reinvent) hostile communicative contexts, challenging and enthralling online play behaviours, and precarious labour conditions. To capture some sense of the tensions negotiated in the confluence of these multiple standpoints, I discuss an interview with Vangie “Aurora” Beal from (archived on the Switch website) and analyse historical web content from sites that served the FPS mod community in the late 1990s, such as I argue that documents produced by modders, and the design content of the mods themselves, point to a persistent preoccupation (within the modding community) with the aggressive online sociability of FPS gameplay. I link this documentation and design content to recent social theory of trolling, showing how historical modding practices open avenues of research relatively untouched by social theory and media theory of mods.

I hope to offer this historical research to the Queerness and Games Conference in terms that provide a shared ground for discussing the issue of queer fatalism in the context of gameplay and game design. Queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman have argued that the queer subject occupies their everyday struggle with contemporary commodity culture by walking a thin line between self-destruction and survival tactics. By engaging with a historical period in which the gender dynamics of aggressive online communication and competitive play behaviour were taking shape, I think we can open an important discussion of how the game player’s daily practices cast light on (and perhaps urge us to modify) the challenging association of queerness with addiction and an embrace of finitude that Berlant and Edelman have both put forth so daringly.

Will is a PhD student in the department of Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU. His research on mods dates to his Master’s degree at McGill University, where he studied a collaborative game design project by Tracey Fullerton and Bill Viola. Will has also written art criticism (on performance art and conceptual photography), planned conferences and workshops (on games and contemporary art), and worked as an editor (for academic book projects on the history of obscenity law and the role of avant-garde film in the gender politics of the 1960s).